Saturday, January 9, 2021

Asking for Support – A Backwards Proposition?

I’ve been unemployed for a long time now and due to the pandemic, have had a tough time finding a new day job.  With all the free time on my hands, I have of course written a few new songs, but it’s a bittersweet situation and not as ideal for a songwriter as it sounds.  I’ve always wondered if the song quantity and quality would improve if I didn’t have to work, but needing income is a constant worry, and I’m actually more prolific when more busy, as odd as that may sound.

When not applying for jobs, I’ve wondered if I could figure out ways to earn more money with my music, how to make the music more commercial and competitive in the marketplace.  Since I’ve always been more of a songwriter than a singer or instrumentalist, practice aside, the one thing I might theoretically have control over is the quality of the recordings.  Although I’m satisfied with my low fidelity homegrown approach, I’ve wondered about professional studio time and the related equipment, techniques and costs.

Through surfing the Web recently in an attempt to try to learn what other, more successful musical artists have that I don’t (other than more talent), I’ve learned a few things and want to share with you my key takeaways.  The biggest takeaway, and focus of this post, is that I’m dumbfounded by the number of seemingly well-established artists signed to real record labels who engage in shameless fundraising to record and release new albums.  

My immediate reaction is to ask “shouldn’t the record companies pay for this?”  Isn’t that what record labels do?  I thought they advance expenses related to recording and promotion, then recoup with sales percentages as their basic function.  It is confusing.  I won’t name names, but there are countless examples out there of popular artists currently signed to popular labels with multiple released albums who are asking people to donate money for their next recording project.  Let me get back to my motivation a bit first to give a proper background to my confusion.

Sound quality

To get the obvious out of the way, there are countless artists out there who can sing way better than me and play instruments way better than me, so it makes sense they’d be more successful than me.  More practice in those areas aside, I’ve wondered what else could I be doing?  One is to get a better sound quality, like the kind you can get when you pay for time in a real recording studio with a real engineer and maybe even a real producer.  Another is to pay professional session musicians play a lot of the parts on the recordings.  Presumably, you’d end up with everything quantized and automatically tuned perfectly, with tastefully appropriate effects, proper eq, compression, mastering and all that stuff.  The end result would still have my melodies and lyrics and substandard voice, but paying a bunch of money would get me a modern, professional, radio-ready level of sound quality.

As a do-everything-myself home recording artist, I do the best I can with what I’ve got.  I can’t afford anything else.  Admittedly, there’s no accounting for people’s taste in music, and anything I’ve ever written about myself has an undercurrent theme that I think my songs are pretty good, despite not being able to deliver them all that well.  I dream of hearing mainstream artists recording versions of my songs that would make people realize they are as good as I think they are.  I dream of my own recordings gaining massive popularity long after I’ve given up.  Pipe dreams.  However, I would never dream of asking the few fans I have to just give me some of their hard-earned money so they could hear what a new Scott Cooley album would sound like with pro-level sound quality.  

As a matter of fact, I’m told part of my appeal is the “lo-fi” sound my recordings have.  My vocals are “pitchy,” my percussion is slightly off-beat at times, my tempos vary slightly throughout each song, my guitars can be slightly ahead of or behind the beat, parts aren’t perfectly synchronized, instruments can be slightly out of tune, etc.  I use a little effect like reverb here and there, but don’t know how to use it correctly, as a pro would, and when I do, it arguably sounds worse than it did before, which is why I leave all of the tracks fairly clean.  People have told me they like it that way.  They like the fact that I record everything live with microphones and all acoustic instruments.  They like the amateur quality.


Nonetheless, better sound quality is something an infusion of cash could help with, no doubt.  Another is that I do absolutely nothing to make people aware that my music exists at all, other than post a tweet to my few followers and announce it on my website hardly anyone visits, let alone is aware of.  That’s the other thing it seems you get when you’re signed to a record deal – they actually pay for ads, they actively get people who write about music to write about yours.  That costs a lot of money, I am assuming.  

Word-of-mouth without any of that is what I’ve been hoping for.  Just as it feels wrong to ask for money to record a higher-quality sounding album, it feels wrong to ask for money to get exposure.  Truth be told, I don’t want fame at all, I don’t want to be a celebrity, I don’t want to be a public figure in any way.  All that would be terrible, from what I can tell.  I want organic popularity without any of that.  Without paying for fake follows and likes, and without any grandiose gimmicks to get attention, I’d like to have an increasing fanbase through real recommendation.  Accidentally going viral, yet somehow remaining mysteriously anonymous as a person.  These are Catch-22’s, I’m aware.  

Streaming, touring and merchandise

Streaming offers fractions of pennies as compared with CDs or vinyl.  The best way to support me as an artist currently would be to buy one of my CDs that are still currently available, rather than streaming.  I could pretend to be more professional than I am and offer t-shirts, but that would be embarassing because I don't play live gigs.  It wouldn't be possible anyway due to the pandemic.  

A record company and most individual patrons want a return on investment, and that means touring and merchandise.  Realistically, although I’m capable of practicing enough to memorize my own songs and play live gigs and get applause and enjoy it, despite knowing that would help with exposure and record sales, it doesn’t sound fun to me to do that all the time.  To constantly travel and perform to make money isn’t the type of life I want.  I’m a homebody, not a live performer.  

If I hit the lotto, and then decided to sink a ton of it into advertising, and also to hire pro music PR people or whatever they’re called to get me press and media exposure, it would certainly help.  Would any of my current fans enjoy having a t-shirt with my name and picture on it?  Possibly a couple, but even with increased exposure and popularity, I just don’t see much of a demand there.  I’m not much to look at anyway.  I know the appearance of popularity begets actual popularity, so they could certainly help with that.  I wouldn’t mind doing interviews for publications, but public appearances would need to limited to only a few per year.  Currently, I don’t do any, and frankly, I like it that way.  

The Bob Dylan / Nick Drake dreams

I’m happiest to have my little modest home studio where I can put on my mad scientist cap from time to time and write and record songs.  I like everything about my current level of involvement in music, except I’d like it to reach a larger audience.  To make it more appealing, I guess money would help with sound quality and exposure and thus popularity and sales.  I’m not going to ask people for it though.  It doesn’t feel right to me.  

They say people realize what a great songwriter Bob Dylan is after hearing other artists’ covers of his songs.  I’m content daydreaming that someday, great and popular recording artists will discover and record cover versions of my songs that are better than my own versions.  They say obscure artists can become popular and appreciated long after they’re gone like Nick Drake, and never got to enjoy it in their lifetimes.  Maybe after I’m dead, I’ll gain popularity without having to deal with the downside of experiencing it myself.  Chances are slim, but the potential is there.  

It would be neat if there’s an afterlife in which you can enjoy looking down on living world as they wonder why you never got the appreciation and mass appeal while alive.  They’d wonder if you were ahead of your time, and conclude the world just wasn’t yet ready for it during your lifetime.  Either the Dylan or Drake scenarios are appealing.  Potential without the trappings of fame, that’s where I comfortably sit I guess.  Submitting my next album to a record company who says they’d like to give me a bunch of money to re-record it with pros and get ready to tour and sell t-shirts?  Nah, no thanks.  

Aggregator distribution and tax avoidance

Thankfully, the whole CD Baby thing happened, allowing amateur artists like me to have that potential.  I’ve never made enough to actually report income to speak of, so it’s like our president’s companies that constantly lose money.  It costs me more to distribute than I get back from people purchasing my music, but it’s a nominal cost that is like buying a lotto ticket:  you can’t win if you don’t play.  It’s a license to fantasize.  Losing well and keeping up appearances.  I’m guilty of it as a songwriter and recording artist, representing myself in the most favorable light, but I have morals, and though imperfect as we all are, I draw the line and like to think I have integrity.  

I have great pride that my music is completely self-made, like it or not.  I acknowledge my wife has helped me with some accordion and editing suggestions here and there, but otherwise, love doing it all myself.  The appearance of success can get you elected president of a big country.  There are a lot of people who pretend they’re self-made, forgetting to acknowledge the help they got along the way, and hiring tax avoidance strategists who provide them with advantages in maintaining this situation, and seemingly live well with themselves.

Crowdfunding and liner note acknowledgment

So maybe the way it works now is that even if you are on a record label’s roster, you have to fund your own album recording costs somehow, then submit your high-quality pro music to the record company, and then maybe they still pay for the hype in exchange for a cut of the sales.  They probably have a tough time turning a profit these days, I would think.  It’s surprising that they keep signing new artists consistently though, year after year.  

If they rely on patrons of the arts to contribute, anonymously or otherwise, it helps everyone stay afloat perhaps.  Anyone can have a donate button on their website that anyone can use to send money into an artist’s account, no strings attached.  If I was a music appreciator with a lot of money, maybe I’d like to help a friend, but not a random stranger.  Just to see them do well, or better, might be satisfying in and of itself.  I’m no philanthropy expert, but I would imagine that a lot of people want acknowledgement in the liner notes, just like they want the building named after them that they donated to their alma mater, or getting their name on a plaque at a local theatre or whatever.  

They want credit, recognition, and the supposed community prominence that comes with their charity.  It could be that since it seems to work some of the time, the labels said do your own crowdfunding, record the highest-quality album you can, then send it to us, and maybe we’ll release it if we like it, maybe not.  Maybe that’s replaced advances for recording.  It remains confusing to me, and a bit sad.  

It takes audacity I simply don’t have.  You can go to the indie label websites that list artist rosters, then go to those artists’ websites, where you can then see their posts of them asking their fans for support to finance the recording of their new batch of songs.  Seems like a backwards proposition to me.

Making potential donors aware of the ability to accept

All that being said, at one time I did in fact set up a Donate page on my personal web site, with some language I brainstormed about what would be in it for the giver and the receiver, and even went so far as to set up a PayPal account to make it quick and easy should anyone ever want to contribute to my quest for improved recording quality.  It's similar to this venmo thing the kids use these days.  I never made anyone aware of it though, and this post rationalizes that reluctance.  It just so happens that I have in my lifetime become acquainted with many a trust-funder type who would probably never admit they feel guilt for not deserving or earning their wealth, but it occurred to me that some of them may just be odd and twisted (and generous and kind) enough to part with some of it and send me a giant payment anonymously, no questions asked, and without expectations.  If you’re one of them, I can honestly say it would be cool if you did.  

Would I use it for improved sound quality and exposure?  Absolutely.  Is it possible you’d later learn that I bought a large trimaran sailboat and ski-in/ski-out mountain home with your money instead?  Yes.  Would I feel embarrassed or ashamed about it?  A little, but I predict I’d get over it quickly, just like you have managed to learn to get enjoyment out of your standard of living, whether you had to work hard for it or not.  This might add to that enjoyment immensely.  You won’t know ‘till you try.  The grand experiment, unproven to this point in time, may finally have an outcome!  You could know if a cash infusion could show what I’ve always suspected myself:  that my songs are indeed better than my recordings of them reveal.  

Songs as unique investment opportunities

It's actually a hot topic in the music business news lately - famous people like Dylan, members of Fleetwood Mac, and Neil Young selling their back catalog of song rights to investment companies.

If you're interested in some sort of investment in my potential future recording or back catalog earnings, I'd of course be willing to talk to you about it, but realistically I don't see any such potential without marketing and exploitation and a lot of luck.

Shameful random songwriter support benefactor solicitation

What I could benefit from instead is direct, no-strings-attached contributions from either people I know or kind strangers who prefer to remain anonymous.  Well, what the heck, I’ve now talked (blogged) myself into deciding to make people aware that I do have in place the capability to receive donations.  I can only gain from it. So here's the shameless pitch with handy button you can click to send me money (now also at the bottom of my Contact page):

Stand With Scott - No independent solo artist, even a do-it-all-yourselfer like Scott, is capable of developing a great music career alone. Aside from buying the CDs, or volunteering some free time to help promote the music, if you'd like to reach out by way of donating directly (either anonymously or to get a free future CD with your name in the liner notes), we now offer that ability.  You should probably be an adult U.S. citizen using your own funds with a personal credit card issued to you in order to contribute, and you should be aware that your gift is probably not deductible as a charitable contribution for Federal income tax purposes.  To be one of the first to help Scott get off to a strong start making his next batch of new songs into a future album release of higher quality than ever before (and to help offset associated expenses with recording and marketing), click the button below:

In case that button doesn't work for you, here’s the direct link for good measure:

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